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Tension in New Jersey as annual bear hunt begins

Eight counties in New Jersey allow open bear hunting for six days in December, a decision that invites passionate responses from both hunters and wildlife advocates.

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Kim Tinnes, wildlife service technician, right, takes measurements of a 658.5 pound black bear at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area bear check-in station during the first day of the annual black bear hunt in Fredon Township, N,J., Monday, Dec. 7, 2015.

Daniel Freel/The New Jersey Herald via AP

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Hunters killed 216 black bears in New Jersey Monday, the first day of the state’s weeklong bear hunt. Before the six-day hunting season ends on Dec. 12, hunters hope to kill a total of 800 bears.

The annual bear hunt, one of 33 in the country, is an event that draws passionate responses from environmental experts, hunters, activists, and the New Jersey public.

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“The bear hunt is one of many management tools we are using to control the population,” Bob Considine, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. “Destruction of property, livestock, pets – and human encounters – they happen all the time and have been happening.”

After a 30-year sabbatical, state-regulated bear hunting resumed in 2003, with 251 black bears taken in 2013, and 272 taken last year. In a statement released Dec. 3 by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), wildlife officials determined the annual bear hunt necessary “to reduce the population and to reduce conflicts with people.”

But opponents say the bear hunt is unnecessary and unwarranted.

“It is an atrocity for a department that is supposed to look after the management of all wildlife to recommend this bear hunt,” Kathleen Schatzmann, the New Jersey state director for The Humane Society of the United States, told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. “To call it anything besides a trophy hunt is ridiculous.” 

And the New Jersey public has also been a vocal participant in the debate.

Bears are dangerous, they need to eat and the only way they’re going to find food is if they come into residential areas,” one hunter told CBS New York. “It’s unsafe, for animals, kids.”

"We have the densest black bear population in the nation and we also have the most dense human populated state in the nation,"  Carole Stamko, of the Bureau of Wildlife Management, told WABC News. "So when you have those two, it's a perfect recipe for a human bear conflict, and we're trying to reduce that as much as we can."

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But the Bear Education and Resource (BEAR) program says black bears are misunderstood. When confronted by humans, black bears first instinct is to run away or climb a tree. In fact, BEAR cites bear expert Dr. Lynn Rogers who says that a person is 247 times more likely to be killed by lightning or 120 times more likely to be killed by a bee.

When the New Jersey Fish and Game Council voted to adopt their Black Bear Management Plan in August, public comments opposed to the entire policy outweighed those in support by a ratio of 17 to one.

“It’s not a vote, it’s not a popularity contest,” Mr. Considine explains to the Monitor in reference to the public comment section of the policy. “We’re putting science and data to use, it’s not willy-nilly. We started with a five-year plan and the population hasn’t gone down. It's just science.”

The DEP data has estimated the size of the black bear population in northwestern New Jersey at 3,500 since 2010, but Ms. Schatzmann says the government is pushing population control where it is not needed. 

“We think their science is unjustified,” she argues. “We know they are estimating 3,500 bears in New Jersey – it’s the same as in 2010. It’s not a sustainable number they are looking at.”

In the future, far more New Jersey black bears will be harvested because an additional six-day October bowhunting season is planned to begin in 2016. The allowable per-hunter quota will also increase from one bear to two, provided the hunter takes one bear in October and one in December.